“The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen,” Richard Dawkins declares in The God Delusion, “more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalene. … The Gospels that didn’t make it were omitted by…ecclesiastics perhaps because they included stories that were even more embarrassingly implausible than those in the four canonical ones.”
A few months ago, a Newsweek columnist claimed the four New Testament Gospels were not universally embraced in the churches until “political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament”—and, the columnist further claims, Emperor Constantine was one of the key voices in this decision.
A Huffington Post columnist refers to Gospels other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as “runners up” that were left on “the cutting room floor” when the books of the New Testament were finalized.
Such claims have multiplied in popularity over the past few years. The impression in certain segments of popular media seems to be that, at some point in the history of Christianity, church leaders were faced with a dozen or more competing Gospels. They selected the texts known today by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but they might just as easily have chosen a different set of texts.
The historical flaws in these popular claims are manifold. There is—for example–no hint of any moment in history when Christians did not embrace the four canonical Gospels as authoritative and true, even if other Gospels were circulating at the same time. What’s more, the four New Testament Gospels were being traced to eyewitnesses of Jesus no later than the late first century.
What I want to consider in this post, however, is simply the antiquity of the New Testament Gospels in comparison with other texts that have been identified as “Gospels.” What you’ll learn is that, as far as we can tell from the surviving texts, only the New Testament Gospels were written at a time when eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus were still alive and were traceable to eyewitness testimony.
So how can we know that the New Testament Gospels were most likely written during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses?
These texts weren’t written as tweets or blog posts with time-stamps embedded in them, after all.
And yet, a broad range of evidence suggests that the four New Testament Gospels were received as authoritative in the first century—there are mentions of the Gospels in second century literature, for example, with clear links to individuals in the first century, and very early fragments survive from copies of the New Testament Gospels.
With this in mind, let’s take a quick look at when these fragments were copied, where they circulated, and what the earliest references to the Gospels say about their origins.[i] Then, we’ll look at some of the early reports about these Gospels.
Widely Circulated in the Second Century
One of the oldest surviving portions—perhaps the oldest portion—from any New Testament Gospel is a tiny scrap of papyrus, about two inches wide and fewer than four inches tall. This fragment, discovered in Egypt in the early twentieth century, is known as “Papyrus Rylands Greek 457” or more simply as “P52.”[ii] The Greek words on the front side of P52 come from John 18:31-33. The fragment’s back side records a few words from John 18:37-38. Despite its small size and few words, P52 is one of the most significant fragments of the New Testament. Its importance is rooted, however, not so much in what it says but in when it seems to have been copied.
Distinct styles of handwriting enable scholars to assign approximate dates to ancient manuscripts. To determine when the document came into existence, they might compare the handwriting style of the less-certain manuscript with the writing styles in manuscripts that have well-established dates—provincial records, for example, or dated letters. The idea is that manuscripts from similar time periods will have similar handwriting styles. If the writing style in the less-certain manuscript is similar to the style of a manuscript with a definite date, both documents were probably copied in the same time period.
Of course, since writing styles evolve slowly and unevenly, this process—known as paleography—can only assign a range of approximate dates to manuscripts.
The style of handwriting found in P52 is very similar to a bit of papyrus from Fayyum, a desert region in the northern reaches of Middle Egypt.[iii] This fragment, known as Papyrus Fayyum 110, is a personal letter from a farmer named Lucius Gemellus. In the letter, Gemellus shares some thoughts with his slave Epagathos about the fertilization and irrigation of the olive orchard.[iv] The content of this letter isn’t particularly exciting—unless, of course, you’ve been losing sleep over the precise mixture of water and manure to toss on those olive trees in your backyard. Yet the strong similarities between the handwriting in this fragment and P52 are extremely significant, because Gemellus dated this letter in the year that we know as “A.D. 94”—though, of course, that wasn’t what Gemellus called it. For him, it was the fourteenth year of the reign of Emperor Domitian. This places one of the papyrus fragments most similar to P52 near the end of the first century.
That does not mean P52 was copied in the first century. Paleographic dating doesn’t provide us with precise dates; in nearly every instance, it provides us with broad time frames when a manuscript might have been copied. Other manuscripts very similar to P52 include a second-century fragment of The Iliad (P. Berol 6845). All in all, P52 seems most likely to have been copied sometime in the second century.
So what does this suggest about John’s Gospel?
In the second century, the Gospel According to John was not only completed and being copied but also circulating far from its point of origin. Other second-century fragments from John’s and Matthew’s Gospels (P90, P104) have been unearthed in Egypt as well, about a hundred miles south of Cairo. That’s nearly four hundred miles from Jerusalem and more than a thousand-mile journey from ancient Ephesus. At the very least, these pieces of papyrus suggest that the Gospels According to Matthew and John were in wide circulation in the second century. Since Matthew’s Gospel seems to have used Mark’s Gospel as a source, the Gospel According to Mark must have been available as well.
Connected from the Beginning to First-Century Testimony
By the end of the second century, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were already being bound together in a single book (P4, P64/P67). Such wide circulation of these four Gospels in the second century supports numerous reports that these texts were penned in the first century. Papias of Hierapolis—writing in the early second century about first-century events in Asia Minor—attests to the first-century origins of Matthew and Mark; the second-century Muratorian Fragment does the same for Luke’s and John’s Gospels. Irenaeus of Lyon, writing in the second century from modern France, echoes these same origin stories.
What About the Other Gospels?
And what about all those other Gospels—the alleged “runners-up” that were supposedly excised and dropped the canonical cutting-room floor? There are a few of these that were most likely written in the second century but none that were clearly written in the first century. There is, for example, a second-century portion from an otherwise-unknown Gospel that parallels three New Testament texts and includes an additional fragmentary account as well. Other fragments that may have been copied in the second century come from a Gospel falsely ascribed to Peter and from a collection of sayings known as Gospel of Thomas. Yet, unlike the New Testament Gospels, there is no supporting evidence to link any text in this tiny handful of fragments to any first-century eyewitness. Even though certain segments in these other Gospels may be traceable to true traditions about Jesus, there’s little reason to think that any of these texts is traceable to eyewitness testimony from the first century. Other Gospels beyond these were written much later, with neither pretense nor probability of presenting accurate testimony about Jesus.
Canons, Councils, and Cutting-Room Floors
So what about the charge that “the four Gospels…were chosen more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen”? Or that “political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels…were to make up the New Testament”? Such claims ignore clear evidence that
* the four New Testament Gospels were received as authoritative from the beginning,
* the New Testament Gospels were traced to testimony from apostles and eyewitnesses from the beginning,
* and that the alternative “Gospels” were not ascribed to apostles until sometime after the eyewitnesses had passed away.
The four Gospels were not randomly selected from a larger sampling of Gospels; they were the standard by which other texts were tested from the first century forward. The New Testament Gospels, written while eyewitnesses were still living and traced from the beginning to firsthand testimony, remain the most reliable surviving accounts of the life of Jesus Christ.
The Earliest Surviving Portions of the New Testament
(Papyrus Rylands Greek 457)
|Fragment from a copy of John’s Gospel (18:31-33, 37-38)||2nd century A.D.|
(Papyrus Oxy. 3523)
|Fragment from a copy of John’s Gospel (18:36—19:1; 19:2-7)||2nd century A.D.|
(Papyrus Oxy. LXIV 4404)
|Fragment from a copy of Matthew’s Gospel (21:34-37; 21:45)||2nd century A.D.|
|Portions from a codex of the four Gospels (Matthew 3:9-15; 5:20-28; 26:7-33; Luke 1:58—2:7; 3:8—4:2; 4:29-35; 5:3-8; 5:30—6:16). Demonstrates that the New Testament Gospels were being copied together very early.||2nd or 3rd century A.D.|
[i] It’s quite possible, though not certain, that Tertullian of Carthage referenced autographs of Paul’s writings when he mentioned the “authenticae litterae.” If so, original manuscripts of some New Testament texts survived at least until the late second century; if original manuscripts of the Gospels persisted until the end of the second century, it is conceivable that the earliest surviving Gospel fragments were copied from original manuscripts. See De Praescriptione Haereticorum 36.1: retrieved March 1, 2007, from <http://www.tertullian.org/ >).
[ii] B. Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 23-52. For the first references to P52 after its discovery, see C. Roberts, “An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 20 (1936):45-55.
[iii] C. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands (Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon, 1955) 11.
[iv] <http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/dlo?obj=columbia.apis.p387&size=300&face=f&tile=0>. See transcription of text at <http://perseus.tufts.edu>; for more information about the Gemellus correspondence, see N. Hohlwein, “Le vétéran Lucius Bellienus Gemellus, gentleman-farmer au Fayoum,” Études de Papyrologie 8 (1957): 69-91.